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Forum Boarium: Rome’s Oldest & Most Well-Preserved Temples

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Forum Boarium

The Forum Boarium, or “Foro Boario”, is a spectacular hidden jewel just off the beaten path of Rome, but well within the heart of the historic centre. The area, which was once used as an Ancient Roman meat and fish market, is home to some of the Eternal City’s oldest and most-well preserved structures. Just a small trek from the mainstream metro lines, and anyone can find themselves in this awe-inspiring corner of Rome amongst relics of the Roman Republic, which have endured for over 2 millennia – and don’t get near the credit they deserve!

While the Forum is most commonly known for its use as a mercantile center, it’s origins were rooted in religion. In fact, it was the earliest cult-centre of Hercules in Rome, starting with a massive 5th century altar of Unconquered Hercules. While the original altar was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD, the 2nd century Temple of Hercules Victor stands strong today along with its contemporary neighbour, the Temple of Portunus, and the 4thcentury Arch of Janus – each with its own interesting story.

Temple of Hercules Victor

Temple of Hercules Victor

The Temple of Hercules “the Winner” was built in the 2nd century BC, earning it a couple of really cool titles. For example, it is the oldest surviving marble building in Rome (isn’t that amazing?) as well as the only surviving sacred structure made of Greek marble. But the building materials are clearly not the only Greek feature; the architectural style is so Greek the Foro Boario almost doesn’t even feel like Rome! Greek architect Hermodoros of Salamina didn’t hold back from incorporating his Greco-inspiration into the structure, which is made up of a round center surrounded by 20 Corinthian columns on a sturdy tuff foundation. It stands out amongst Roman architecture and inspired many constructions, including Bramante’s “Tempietto”.

The temple, sometimes referred to as the “Temple of Hercules Olivarius” (or “Protector of the Olive”), is believed by some to have been the place where Hercules rested after completing the 10th of his 12 labours (the tasks he was required to complete for penance). In the 12th century it was converted into a church by Pope Innocent III, who dedicated it to San Stefano alle Carozze, or “Saint Stephen of the Carriages”, perhaps in reference to the heavy carriage traffic in the area when the market was hosted on the site. Since then, it has been rededicated to “St Mary of the Sun” and was decorated with interior frescoes in the 1400s. In the 1990s the structure underwent a much-needed restoration, which repaired a tilt that the building had taken on over the centuries. Fortunately, the resilient temple is now reinforced and will last for millennia to come.

Temple of Portunus

Temple of Portunus

Another gorgeous Greek-inspired superstructure in the Forum Boarium is the Temple of Portunus. While the original dedication of the building has been suggested to have something to do with water crossings and seaports, the mystery remains unsolved. The evidence that is available has led historians to refer to it as to as the “Temple of Portunus”, Portunus being a god who is associated with keys, doors, and livestock (which seems appropriate as the area was a cattle market which frequently received imports from nearby river docks). Others insist that it made its way through the centuries as the “Temple of Fortuna Virilis”, or “Temple of Many Fortune”.

The rectangular building surrounded by classically-Greek ionic columns was a typical style of the Roman Republican era – but this is the most well-preserved example, by far, dating back to 100 BC. At the end of the Roman Empire, the area was taken over by shops and, in the 9th century, it was converted into a Christian church and given a modernizing make over – complete with the addition of interior frescoes depicting the life of Mary.

Arch of Janus

Arch of Janus

While the Arch of Janus is tucked slightly into the Roman scene, across the heavy traffic divide of the Forum Boarium, it is unmistakably unique. In fact, it is the only surviving quadrifons arch in Rome, meaning that it is the only arch with 4 pillars instead of two. In this case, the name “Janus” is thought to be inadvertently dedicated to the double-headed Roman god, whose name stems from the Latin word “ianua”, or “door”. The arch itself acted as a door from a busy Tiber River port to the Palatine Hill and heart of the Roman Forum. The megastructure is decked in marble pieces taken from earlier buildings, which place the construction of the arch at about 450 BC.

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Author: April Nicole

April is an American writer and photographer who has lived in Rome since 2013. She enjoys exploring the museums of the city, as well as indulging in authentic Italian cuisine!

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